Dennis Anderson
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IN AFTON STATE PARK – On Tuesday, while hiking in this oak-laden expanse of bluffs, ravines and grassy ridgetops that adjoin the St. Croix River, Erika Rivers was uncertain when Minnesota state parks would again be open to overnight camping.

The second oldest state park system in the nation, Minnesota’s latticework of 66 state parks and nine recreation areas, encompassing nearly 4,400 campsites and a cascade of archaeological wonders and spectacular vistas, is arguably the crown jewel of all such nature-based destinations.

Each year, nearly 10 million people visit Minnesota state parks, with 1.1 million camping overnight.

But except at a relative handful of remote state park sites where camping is allowed, no one has pitched a tent or parked an RV in a Minnesota state park since March 27, when Gov. Tim Walz issued a stay-at-home order and closed the parks to overnight use in hopes of stemming the spread of the coronavirus.

Now, as Minnesotans tiptoe back to normalcy, the governor on Wednesday greenlighted the reopening of state parks to camping, beginning June 1.

Anticipating the governor’s announcement, Rivers, 48, Department of Natural Resources state parks and trails director since 2014, said on Tuesday that restarting the $32 million operation she oversees will be gradual — and complicated.

“A vast majority of state park employees are seasonal, and when the COVID-19 crisis hit, we had not yet called them back in preparation for the summer camping season,” Rivers said. “Now we need to get those people back on staff. There’s mowing, brushing and hazard tree assessment to do, and our visitor centers have to be opened, at least partially, some of which are older and will require maintenance.”

As Rivers spoke, veritable caravans of cars entered and departed parking lots near the Afton State Park visitor center.

During the lockdown, state park day-use skyrocketed in the central and southern parts of Minnesota, as cooped-up residents sought respite while hiking, biking and horseback riding.

From March 1 to April 15, state-park visits were 66% higher than in 2019, and day-use and annual park-permit sales spiked. But the additional revenue couldn’t offset losses from 13,000 voided camping reservations, netting the DNR a $1.4 million shortfall for the period.

“We’ve canceled all state park camping reservations through the end of May and we’ve stopped taking additional reservations for June,” Rivers said. “We will be corresponding with people with reservations about their parks and their reservation dates. As soon as we can, we will let people know when parks with their reservations will open.

“We’ll do this as quickly as possible. But all parks won’t open to camping at once. It will be a phased-in process.”

The DNR announced Thursday it anticipates having up to 30 campgrounds ready to open by June 1, with the rest opening by June 15.

Camping amid a pandemic

Established in 1891, Itasca was Minnesota’s first state park, and when camping begins there again this summer, visitors will be able to hopscotch across the Mississippi River headwaters, just as Jacob Brower did two centuries ago when he spearheaded the park’s legislative designation.

But amid a worldwide pandemic whose end is not yet in sight, camping will be different this summer at Itasca and Minnesota’s other state parks and recreation areas.

As much as possible, Rivers said, campers will be asked to make reservations online or by phone so that face-to-face interactions between park visitors and DNR staff can be minimized. Park permits should be purchased the same way, she said.

Similarly, stops by overnight visitors at ranger stations that grace state park campsite entrances will be discouraged. Maps and other information historically acquired from DNR staff at these sites will be available in kiosks or can be downloaded from the agency’s website.

“The system is going to have to evolve to meet current needs, and to the extent possible, for the time being, this means we will minimize contact between park staff and visitors,” Rivers said. “The one thing campers will need from ranger stations is firewood, because we don’t allow outside wood into a park unless it’s certified. Again, we’re working on ways campers can get and pay for firewood without staff contact.”

At entrances to Afton and four other state parks, tests are underway this spring of machines that issue visitor permits, with payment by credit card. The trial runs are promising, Rivers said, but the effort won’t be expanded systemwide this year.

Limiting interactions between the public and DNR staff in visitor centers will be another challenge, perhaps especially in the large, recently constructed centers like those at Gooseberry Falls, which welcomed 757,000 visitors in 2019, and Tettegouche, which had 478,000 people stop by last year.

These and similar buildings have bathrooms, retail stores and in some cases interpretive displays — all of which feature surfaces frequently touched by the public.

Plans for these edifices are still developing, Rivers said, but it’s possible the buildings will be closed, at least initially, except for accesses to bathrooms.

Meanwhile, park visitors can expect many DNR staff to wear face masks, and health screenings of staff will be required when parks become operational. Social distancing and other pandemic-era protocols will govern the public’s visits, Rivers said, though it’s unlikely visitors will be required to wear masks. Their use will be encouraged, however, when people from different households are within 6 feet of each other.

“Our policy is to follow CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines regarding face coverings,” she said.

Such precautions are necessary, Walz said Wednesday in his announcement that overnight camping will be allowed, because in Minnesota the coronavirus threat and resulting hospitalizations and deaths will “get worse before it gets better.”

Yet pandemic or no pandemic, the siren call of the 267,000 acres of woods, waters and fields showcased within Itasca, Tettegouche, Gooseberry, Afton and other state parks likely will prove irresistible to millions of Minnesotans.

Which is another of Rivers’ concerns.

“Because people have been isolated in recent months, they’re appreciating our public lands at an entirely different level,” she said. “Park visitation will continue to be strong, making it even more important we give these places tender loving care. We hope visitors take personal responsibility and come prepared with extra supplies — surface disinfectant, hand sanitizer, maybe even a roll of toilet paper.

“If we all do a little extra to maintain our parks, we’ll have them forever.”

Editor’s note: For more information about camping at Minnesota state parks and other campgrounds this summer, here are the DNR guidelines.